The waxy yellow-purple vegetables would sit on the shelf of the fridge for about a week every November. “Those again?” my siblings and I always complained, pushing them aside to find something edible.
“It’s not Thanksgiving without rutabagas,” my grandmother would say.
“They’re for your father. It’s a tradition.” My mother would never have added “from who knows where,” but I think she may have thought it. My grandmother always made rutabagas with turkey, so my father expected them on our holiday table as well. For years, there would be one small rutabaga diced and left to simmer on the stove while the turkey roasted. My father or grandfather would be pressed into service to cut them. My mother always claimed that she didn’t have the strength to wield the cleaver through the rock-hard roots. Before we sat down at the table, she would mash them. She always placed them in the smallest china serving bowl, set at the back of the buffet between Grandma’s sweet potatoes and marshmallow mush and her ugly mincemeat pie — all the things the kids didn’t want polluting their turkey and dressing.
But one year, my older brother, younger sister, and I decided to try the rutabagas. We went back for heaping seconds.
“Where are the rutabagas?” my father asked.
“Right there, near the yams”. My mother turned to see my father holding an empty bowl. “Who ate them? She looked around the dining room before glancing at the kid’s table in the other room. You kids like them?” she asked incredulously. Sighing, she promised that she’d make more the next year.
After that Thanksgiving, rutabagas became de rigueur on everyone’s plate next to the turkey and dressing. If there were not significant amounts of the watery golden mash to go with leftover turkey during the holiday weekend, loud grumblings sounded throughout the house. As my siblings and I grew up and extended our families with spouses and children, rutabagas continued to grace our thankful tables. It was a rite of acceptance for a new partner to try the rutabagas. Skeptical questions of “What’s that?” were always answered with “Try them. They’re good.” I’m sure at least one of my brothers-in-law might have been told that they must taste them — or else! — and there might even have been a few kicks under the table if someone hesitated or showed dislike of the family favorite.
Rutabagas were not to be messed with. As Thanksgiving meals moved from our parents home to those of my sisters, we tried different recipes. Rutabaga slow roasted with apples and walnuts? Too FoodNetwork. Seasoned with ginger? There was a small revolt and it was years before I was asked to make them again.
The last year my father was alive, my sisters and I offered to bring various dishes for the family feast, as we had done for years. “I’ll make the rutabagas,” my mother said. But, as Thanksgiving Day drew closer, she started to make calls asking if we had any rutabagas. “No, Mom, but I’ll go buy some”.
“No. No. I’ve already tried. There aren’t any. The produce manager at the grocery says that he’ll get some in, but none yet.”
Mom went to the grocery several times looking for the shipment. “I don’t even know what they taste like” the grocer said, “but, they must be good if you want them so badly. Would turnips work instead?”
“Turnips? Absolutely not! Nobody in my family would think of eating turnips! Rutabagas are delicious and we always have them with turkey. Would you call me if you get some before Thanksgsiving?” my mother asked, handing him a piece of paper with her name and phone number.
But no rutabagas arrived. For a few moments, there were skeptical looks around the table on Thanksgiving Day. “No rutabagas? There weren’t any to buy anywhere?” We all shook our heads and enjoyed the rest of the feast although our favorite root vegetable was not there.
A few weeks later, my parents walked into the store. The produce manager spotted my mother. “Helen!” he called. “Guess what? Rutabagas! In that bin over there near the cabbage and turnips.”
“Thanksgiving is over,” my mother reminded him.
“Yes, I know, but I thought you might want some for Christmas. Go look.” he said, pointing towards the vegetables.
My mother followed his directions. As she approached the bin, she started to laugh and pointed excitedly to the vegetables. “Look, honey” she said to my father. “They have them — just for me.”
There, next to the turnips, parsnips, and squash, were several rutabagas. Above them, a handwritten sign: “HelenBagas”.
“They’re just for you, Helen” the grocer said with a big smile.
“It used to be just my husband who liked them” she said, “but now all of the kids and grandkids do too. I’m not really sure that they should be named after me.” Smiling, Mom picked up several and put them in the shopping cart.
This year, I’ll bring the rutabagas to dinner at my sister’s home. “Make them the traditional way” she reminded me. I’ve learned to cut them crosswise, and I buy them fresh at the Farmers’ Market so they are not waxed, so they aren’t as difficult to cut as the ones my mother used to use. But I will cook them the traditional way; the way my mother did: boiled, then mashed with unhealthy amounts of butter and cream.
The Brits may call them Swedes. Americans may call them rutabagas. My family calls them Helenbagas. They are as traditional as turkey in my family and synonymous with Thanksgiving love.